On OTW and the Ensuing Debate on the Worth of Fanfic
Of course, this means too that the same tired old arguments against fan fiction are being trotted out again. I've never been comfortable covering the legal ground because--comfortable as I am with the English language in all forms--legalese definitely intimidates me. I don't feel comfortable with deciding on legal arguments, and so I will leave these alone. However, there are issues that are more creative or ethical that I find interesting, as I see them time and time again, and it seems to me that they have easy answers ... but then, I'm very biased. Fan fiction is what brought me back to writing when I'd become disheartened to the point of making my best attempt at quitting; fan fiction has introduced me to friends that I hope I'll have for the rest of my life. It is hard for me to see past this, but I do welcome other views on where my counterarguments are flawed or short-sighted. I find that as writing about and studying Tolkien moves from a passing fancy to a hobby that I hope will be lifelong, then I want to understand this issue, and part of that involves understanding why what means so much to me makes me inherently unacceptable to many of my writing peers.
"Fanfic is for lazy writers. The original author has done all the work in creating the characters and the world, and the fanfic author is just piggybacking on his or her efforts."
This statement always reveals to me the naivete of the writer. Making the argument that writing a story is easy because it fits into an already-existing world or utilizes already-existing people/characters is like making the argument that stories that take place in our modern world or using real-life people (whether historical figures or characters based on people we know in real life) is necessarily easy.
In many cases, fanfic transcends what it portrayed in the source on which it is based. Of course, I belong to a very small and obscure fandom based on a work that is basically a thousands of years of history covered in a few hundred pages (The Silmarillion), so necessarily, Silm stories will introduce characters, cultures, and events that aren't in the original, but I have trouble imagining a fandom where this is not possible and, likely, widely practiced by authors who have been writing about a particular work for some time.
Furthermore, statements of this sort simply reek of snobbery. I am unpleasantly reminded of too many discussions in university writing classes where literary/mainstream authors would loudly declare the inherent inferiority of we lowly "genre" sorts. It's easy to look at the kind of writing that another person does--particularly when it isn't our cup of tea--and declare it easy as compared to our own particular flavor of fiction. Having written all, I can say that fantasy and horror are no easier--and are in many ways more difficult--than literary/mainstream. Fanfic is no easier--and, again, can be more difficult--than any of the above. While I can appreciate why readers might prefer one over the other--and who am I to argue with personal taste?--then I can't underscore enough that personal taste isn't reason enough to disparage the efforts an author puts into his or her writing.
"It's wrong to steal another author's characters and world."
I can understand authors' misgivings with seeing their characters and worlds written from other peoples' perspectives and, quite possibly, grievously misunderstood and misinterpretted. I remember back when my original fantasy universe was also being considered as the setting for an RPG, and one of my dearest online friends and I were doing a lot of RPing of my characters, many of whom I had "loaned" to her for RPing as we got things set up. In my original fantasyverse, my Elves are innately bisexual, and as she was writing one of my "teenage" Elves, then Talban's sexual awakening was often front and center. My friend couldn't understand why her horny teenager wouldn't lust after his gorgeous and liberated "uncle," who had raised Talban's father (but wasn't actually a blood relation), and I couldn't understand why she would even consider that sexual feelings could develop between two characters who were, in their own estimation, family. We both maintained good humor about the disagreement, but it did highlight to me the kneejerk "omg no!" reaction that an author might feel upon seeing her beloved characters written in a way that she never personally imagined.
At the same time, I do think that authors who share their writing with others need to come to terms that this will happen, whether fanfic is written or not. Readers are going to make any work their own as part of reading the story; no work that is shared remains 100% true to its author's vision. Face it, we can't let readers into our heads, and no amount of exposition will leave every single detail explored. There are a billion what-ifs that a lifetime of work won't answer (Tolkien being a prime example of this), and readers are bound to consider them. That they do is a compliment to the work: What writer wants a reader not to continue thinking about the work upon setting it down? Isn't that what makes a story irresistible, that one can't stop thinking about it?
Yes, I can hear fanfic's critics saying, readers will think of the story in ways that the author didn't necessarily anticipate. But there is a big difference between thinking about a story and writing stories based on it.
I argue that there's not too much difference, and I often can't believe that other writers--of all people--are unable to understand this. For me, thinking too much about anything translates into the urge to write it down and explore it via the written word; to me, that compulsion is the essential definition of being a writer. There is a continuum, and where do we draw the line? I read a book, and I love it. I think about it day and night. I mention it to a friend who has also read it, and we spend an afternoon talking about it. We spend an afternoon emailing about it. We spend an afternoon role-playing it. In email. I write my thoughts in an essay. I write my thoughts in a story that lives and dies on my harddrive. I write my thoughts in a story that I share with a few close friends. I write my thoughts in a story that I put on an exclusive password-locked website. I write my thoughts in a story and print it and distribute it at a convention. I write my thoughts in a story and put it up on a locked site that anyone can join. I write my thoughts in a story and put it up on the web for all to see. Where do we draw the line?
Is it the act of writing down my thoughts? (And how can writers possibly say this?) Is that only writing fiction, or does non-fiction count as well? Or is it simply sharing the ideas that the author probably didn't want me to have? Thinking them in the first place?
I'm sorry. If you don't want people to think, talk, and write about your story in ways that you didn't intend when writing it, then don't share the story. That seems pretty simple to me. The only way to keep your world, your characters, and your story "pure" is to keep it only in your head, where everything is always right. No, you don't have to agree or condone what your readers think, but if writers can't understand the human drive toward creativity and sharing that creativity even when they don't agree ... shame on you.
Also, I must admit that I find it dismaying that the standard example used to vilify fanfic is slash. I'm not attempting to engage in a debate about whether homosexuality is canon in any fandom, including my own. I'm talking about the idea that when people want a convenient example of repulsive or bad fanfic, slash is usually cited. One comment on Scalzi's blog even specifically mentions "icky slashfic." Why is slash any "ickier" than a sexual het story? Why is a Draco/Harry story "icky" while Hermione/Harry goes unremarked-upon? Homosexuality is clearly canon in Rowling's world, so I don't see how one AU is more reprehensible than the other. Yes, I know it's just another example of insidious homophobia even among people who claim to be open-minded about sexual preference, much like the suprisingly homophobic hullabaloo over Dumbledore's sexuality. At the same time, I think we need to be aware of these tendencies and to question them. If you think it's icky to write non-canon pairings, I may not agree, but for love of Elves, stop targeting only homosexual pairings.
(Also, I wonder if these (predominantly male) critics of slashfic would feel equally squicked by Luna/Hermione?)
"Fanfic is useless because one can't publish or make a profit on it."
In truth, I can stomach most arguments against fanfic, but this one positively makes my blood boil. Whether we like it or not, art in any form is not a lucrative venue, and few of us--even those of us with talent--will ever have hope to make a living on our writing. So what is the true worth of writing? The money that it earns or the joy, inspiration, and reflection that it generates?
No, few of us will ever see the first. But we all have the ability to generate the second; we all have the power to move an audience, to inspire someone to creativity or cause someone to think differently about something. How many people earning six-figure salaries can say that?
Fanfic may not make its writers any money, but there are fanfic stories that move and inspire more people than some of the trash being published that makes its authors a living.
This next argument, I don't think I can rephrase any better than the original poster:
"The vast majority of fanfic is utter dreck. The same numbers also hold true for orginal stories and scripts, but at least there we’re spared having to see the worst of it by the publishing process. Thank God for editors and their colored pencils."
The idea that most fanfic is terrible or that most fanfic is adolescent/Mary-Sue or adult/PWP fantasies put to paper might well be true. In Silmfic, I don't think this is the case--a good number of the Silmfic authors I know could give many published fantasy writers a run for their money--but I'm aware that Silmfic is an odd fandom that attracts a certain type of
You know what? It's true of all writing, whether "original" fantasy based on the most tired D&D cliches, the latest in literary navel-gazing, bodice-ripping romance, or fan fiction.
And you know what else? The "editors and their colored pencils" ceased to be a factor when the Internet became commonplace in most homes.
There are non-selective archives for original fiction. There's Fiction Press, fanfiction.net's o-fic cousin. There are free blogging/journal services. There's free webspace for rent at every corner of the Internet. There are mailing lists, writers' groups, forums, and workshops where one can make friends and promote his or her stories to an audience. Someone with a story to tell--no matter how crappy--no longer needs to brave the "publishing process" in order to get that story out to the world. As in the whole world. Not just the couple hundred subscribers to Bellybutton Lint Literary Journal. As in 1.2 billion (and growing!) Internet users worldwide.
And you know what? This is a good thing.
Yes, editors and publishers may "spare" our innocent, delicate eyes from having to see the "dreck" that the vast majority of writers want to show us. But they also discourage plenty of new writers with talent but not impressive resumes; they also prevent new ideas and styles from taking hold amid the old familiar standards. Publishing has its place. Heck, I love publishing my fiction; it's thrilling to see my work in print, and award-winning journals and magazines do provide a place for readers who want to find a story they're all but guaranteed to like. But that the Internet has given power to every writer with a connection to possibly reach an audience is wonderful also. I'm of the opinion that anything that gets people using their brains and their creativity is most likely a good thing.
"Fan fiction could lose money for the original creator(s)."
I always find this laughable because I have spent a profound amount of money on Tolkien's books and on products licensed by (and, therefore, financially beneficial) to the Tolkien Estate because of fan fiction and canon studies inspired by fan fiction. If I was a Tolkien fan who liked the books and didn't intend to write fan fiction and non-fiction about them, then I probably would have stopped pulling out my credit card at The Silmarillion. As it is, I've amassed more than a dozen books beyond that--including several books by Tolkien that have nothing to do with Middle-earth--because of my drive to understand this author, his world, and every aspect of it. There are few authors in the Silm fandom who are not guilty of buying books and products because of their fan fiction, and those who can't afford to often speak eagerly of the day when they can ... and will.
I can't speak for other fandoms, but I can't imagine that someone writing Heroes fanfic (for example) wouldn't first tune into every episode to keep abreast the canon and then buy the DVDs as a resource. For domains where I am a "normal" fan--someone who enjoys the book/movie/show but isn't particularly compelled to create based on it--my drive to buy is far less. I like the show Lost but don't own the DVDs and haven't even seen much beyond the halfway point of Season Two. I like Harry Potter and I do own all seven books, but I wouldn't buy the encyclopedia I hear HP fans muttering about, and I don't even think that I own a single one of the movies. HP fanfic writers, it's confession time: How much HP product do you own? I bet it's a whole lot more than "normal" fans (like me) do!
Then the argument surfaces that our stories detract from the audience for the original, which always puzzles me. Raise your hand if you've read a Silmarillion story without having read Tolkien. Or ... raise your hand if you've read a Harry Potter story without reading Harry Potter?
What fan activities of all sorts do is keep interest high in a particular product. They "hook" casual fans into becoming the rabid sorts of people that go into debt in order to get a hardcover set of the History of Middle-earth series. (*ahem*) They keep interest for an author and her works constantly buzzing among consumers with deep pockets where their favorite books (or movies or TV shows) are concerned.
Most industries would love the sorts of free promotions that fans routinely give to published works via fannish creativity. Other industries pay millions to drum up the same sort of enthusiasm for a product. It puzzles me that the publishing and entertainment industries haven't seized this promotional potential (though I think that many authors recognize this potential and are beginning to encourage it more as a result).
It puzzles me why anyone who claims to do something to make money would discourage activities that are encouraging people to spend more money on their products. (And having the gall to use financial loss as an excuse is even more ironic!)
This post is getting prohibitively long, and I'm putting off writing (fanfic, yes!) to keep adding more to it. I encourage discussion, always, and I would love to see your "favorite" arguments against fanfic (whether you like fanfic or not) that I have missed, any points that I may have missed for the above, and your own replies to the various concerns about fanfic.
On OTW, Bobby just asked me if I intend to get involved with it, and I don't know. The jury's still out. I like a lot of their ideas on paper, but I chronically have great paper-ideas that never manifest into reality, and I'd like to at least wait to see if the impetus that this group seems to possess will progress beyond the heady days of their debut. I'm a member now of their LJ community otw_news, and I'll be watching that space for progress and updates. The simple fact is that I doubt it will be a group that will provide an audience for my work that the Silmarillion Writers' Guild and other Tolkien-centric archives do not. I like the idea of a fan-studies journal and the legal research, and so if I do participate in and/or support the group, it will probably because of a belief in their mission rather than hopes for my own obscure fanfic.
Their most recent post contains links to the articles and blog posts that I used in compiling my own. Particularly, Scalzi's post has an enormous wealth of informative discussion going on in the comments; I only got to about the eightieth comment (out of, currently, 444) before calling it quits because of time constraints, certainly not a lack of interest.